I Wish Someone Had Told Me

Post author Dr. Alfie Wines, M.Div., Ph.D., is a pastor, biblical scholar, and theologian. She currently serves as Senior Pastor of Union Memorial United Methodist Church, Sandy, Texas.  She draws upon her unquenchable passions for biblical interpretation, biblical & religious literacy, worship, music, prayer, and leadership to enlighten, edify, and empower others. She is committed to encouraging compassionate living through a deeper understanding of the biblical text. Find her #BibleStudyRemix on FB Live, Mondays at 7 pm CST, and after the broadcast here

 

My experiences and those of many clergywomen confirm that the church is both a blessed place and a frustrating place to work. While that can be said of any workplace, for many clergywomen, myself included, that duality is magnified and multiplied more times that we’d like to count when the workplace is the church.

The responsibility and opportunity to regularly speak a word of healing and wholeness in various settings is a blessing in and of itself. Years of study along with the work of ministry become a part of one’s life. In time, ministry becomes not just what a clergywoman does, but a part of who she is.

How is it then, that the church is both a blessed place and a frustrating place to work? How is it that so often the people with whom she ministers, the ones she is trying to help, are the very ones who can be the cause of so much pain?

More than once, I’ve asked these questions of myself, and of other clergywomen as well. More than once, I’ve thought, and said out loud, “I wish someone had told me. I wish someone had told me just how difficult the journey can be.”

Whenever the question arises, I am drawn to the story of Abraham and how it is that God does not tell him everything from the beginning. In Genesis 12, Abraham’s first encounter with God, God promises to bless Abraham and make his name great, so that he would be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

In Genesis 15 God tells Abraham that the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, a land already inhabited by several groups of people, will belong to his descendants, that his descendants will be enslaved in another land and come out with many possessions, eventually returning to the promised land in the fourth generation.

In Genesis 17, after Hagar has given birth to Abraham’s son, Ishmael, God reiterates the promise of descendants and commands circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God, Abraham, and Abraham’s descendants. Furthermore, God explains God will bless Ishmael to be a great nation, but that Sarah will give birth to a son who will be Abraham’s heir. 

What strikes me about these passages is not just what God says, but also what God does not say to Abraham about the promises God makes. In ch. 12, God speaks only of the blessing. No mention is made of the difficulties that accompany the promise to make Abraham a blessing to all the earth. In ch. 15 God mentions geographical boundaries, noting that the land is already inhabited and that enslavement and return will be part of Israel’s story. There is no mention that war will comprise a major part of the story. In ch. 17 God explains that Sarah will give birth and that Ishmael will be blessed with descendants. While it is implied by its absence, there is no mention that Ishmael’s nation will not be given any land. There is not even a hint that national decline, exile, and return is also part of the biblical story.   

While this pattern can be seen in the lives of other biblical call stories, for example Isaiah and Jeremiah, it is a major feature in Abraham’s story. Many women in ministry can attest to this same pattern.         

As with Abraham, clergywomen are blessed to be a blessing. As with Abraham, it is also clear that hardly anyone talks about how difficult the journey can be. Perhaps that is the way it is when the undertaking is unchartered territory.

However, women in ministry is no longer unchartered territory. Still, women in ministry have born the pain and lived with the scars. At a time when it is clear that every system, every institution, the church included, is in need of a long overdue overhaul in order to be inclusive, the time for clergywomen to be silent is no longer. 

Here are some things that clergywomen might wish someone—pastor, mentor, colleague, professor—had told them early on as they considered and responded to God’s call in their lives. 

First, church work pays not just less, but a whole lot less, than the corporate workplace.

Second, although “politics” is part of life in any workplace, politics in the church can be even more intense.

Third, while they may have experienced sexism and/or racism in the workplace in other settings, sadly, their most painful experiences can happen in the church.

Fourth, while networking among colleagues is part of any job, it is essential to surviving and thriving in ministry. 

Fifth, the work of a pastor is often a lonely undertaking, especially in a small church with relatively little regular contact with others, including colleagues who understand how difficult the work can be.

Sixth, with so much of the work needing to be done on a weekly basis, repetitiveness may result in work that is neither challenging nor engaging. 

Seventh, built in previous decades, church offices are often dated in comparison to offices built in more recent times.

Eighth, the energy required to meet the demands of church work is quite different than the energy needed in other workplaces.  

Ninth, churches are not held accountable for their missteps.  

Tenth, churches are often more interested in maintaining the status quo of the past than living Jesus’ commandments to love God, others, and oneself.

If you are a clergywoman, please share your experiences. What do you wish someone had told you as you considered and answered God’s call in your life? How can Equity for Women in the Church be a voice and advocate for clergywomen?

Men Speak Out for Equity for Women in the Church

This blog post features male voices speaking out in support of Equity for Women in the Church’s mission.  We asked contributors to respond to this prompt: 

Often advocating for women in ministry is seen as a “women’s issue,” rather than as an urgent justice matter that impacts the whole church and every gender.  Why is the equal representation of clergywomen as pastors important for men, too?  How can men advocate on behalf of women in ministry? 

Each respondent offers his own creative insight and call to wholeness...

Rev. Dr. Marvin McMickle, President, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School:

I should begin by saying that my pastor for the first eight years of my life was The Rev. Mary G. Evans of Cosmopolitan Community Church in Chicago. It was because of her, that I could never join the chorus of those who sought to argue that women could not or should not be in the Christian ministry. This 1930s University of Chicago Divinity School trained woman remains the standard by which I measure all other clergy; male or female.

Just as important for me is Paul’s reference to Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 where Paul refers to Phoebe, one of his female followers by the term diakonos, the exact same term he uses whenever he refers to Timothy or other male followers of Jesus. Granted, Paul seems to point in a different direction when he speaks about women in I Corinthians 14:33-35 and I Timothy 2:11-12. In those two passage Paul seems to either discourage or disallow women any voice or leadership in the early church. In those instances, Paul seems inclined to embrace the prevailing cultural view regarding the status of women in what were the patriarchal, male-dominated societies of the Greco-Roman world. However, in Galatians 3:28 and again in Romans 16:1-2 Paul shows more openness to the full and equal status of women in the church, no matter what the cultural norms might have been.

As the role and status of women in the world has changed, so must the church change its practices and policies regarding any attempt to prevent women from exercising leadership as preachers, pastors, and teachers in the church. I have personally ordained, hired, or installed over two dozen women into ministry positions. All of them continue to serve with distinction. The legacy of Mary G. Evans continues. Praise the Lord!

Marv Knox, Editor of the Baptist Standard, Dallas, TX:

Equal representation of clergywomen as pastors is vital for men as well as women. Let’s consider two perspectives.

First, what if you woke up and discovered more than half your body was paralyzed? The Apostle Paul called the church the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), so this is a fair question. More than 50 percent of most congregations, as well as the church universal, are females. When we deny them the opportunity to serve as pastor, we separate the church from its base of strength. We prohibit the body of Christ from exercising its full potential.

 Second, women bring enormous gifts and blessings to the pastorate. Traits often exhibited abundantly by women—empathy and the innate ability to identify with others, intuition, and willingness to listen first and speak later—are essential qualities for successful pastors. From preaching, to pastoral care, to long-range planning, women pastors excel and expand God’s Kingdom.

 How can men advocate on behalf of women ministers?

• Encourage girls to grow up to be all God wants them to be—and mean it.

• Learn and quote Scripture passages that affirm the ministry of women.

• Speak up for women in ministry; put yourself between bullies and women in ministry.

• Encourage women ministers.

• Pray for them.

Rev. Scott Shirley, Pastor, Church in the Cliff, Dallas, TX:

First, it’s biblical – women have held ministerial positions in every era of the biblical narrative. Junia was an apostle; Phoebe was a deacon; Chloe was a head of household and leader in the church at Corinth; Miriam, Deborah, and Anna were prophets; Mary Magdalene was the first to proclaim the resurrection; unnamed women throughout the Bible mourn and grieve alongside those who suffer. Every task set before me as a minister was done by women in the Bible.

Second, roughly half the people in the world are women. How can the Church speak to women if we won’t allow women to speak with authority? How can we even know what to say if we don’t allow women’s voices in the room? How can we deprive ourselves of the wisdom, knowledge, experience, passion, and strength of half the world?

Finally, personally, I cannot count the number of strong, smart, passionate women I have been blessed to know and learn from. The female teachers, mentors, and colleagues that have helped form me in ministry by far outweigh the value of the men. That’s just the truth. To the men who object to having women in ministry, it is certainly your loss. But you must consider the loss to God’s people at your hands and repent.

Rev. Dr. John Ballenger, Pastor, Woodbrook Baptist Church, Baltimore, MD:

“Dad, why did the preacher say I must have misunderstood God?”

“One … two … three ….”

“What are you doing, Dad?”

“Counting to ten … slowly.”

“You know the dentist said it’s not good
when you grind your teeth together like that.” 

“I know. Thank you for reminding me.
Here’s the thing: do you remember
how utterly disappointed we were
at all the pictures we took on Cadillac Mountain
facing to the east,
looking out over the ocean and the Cranberry Islands,
and facing to the west,
looking out over the lakes and ponds and sounds and bays?
Do you remember how every picture
totally missed the scale of what we saw?”

“Yes. The pictures seemed so small.
And none of them got—
they all got just a little bit—a little piece of what we saw.”

“Exactly. And when it comes to God,
we all turn God and God’s vision for us and for creation
into a smaller version—a distorted vision.
Like with the pictures, it has to do with our limits.” 

“You mean with us being human beings and God being God?”

“Well there is that.
But I really don’t know how to think about what that means anymore.
So I mean more the limits of our imagination—
of our discipline, and commitment, and our compassion.” 

“The limits that keep us from what you’ve always called living big?”

“Yes! 
And a lot of our limits—a lot of our living small
really boils down to fear—
the fear of what’s different—
the fear of not being in control—
the fear of losing control—of losing power.
I think most of our fear though—is the fear that we’re not special.”

“We’re terrified that we’re smaller than we are,
and then act all big because we’re afraid we’re not
and become smaller than we ever were to begin with.”

“Yes. And then don’t even know to be frustrated with the smallness—
or even acknowledge it.
As if to admit our small, somehow makes God small,
instead of simply affording us the opportunity to say
something about what’s so much bigger.”

“So instead of letting our small sink into big,
we shrink God.”

“All too often, yes.
But one of the best gifts of our God and of our faith,
if we’re open to it,
is the call of God’s big to our small—
the call of beyond and more to what is.
So if God calls you to include
and to love
and to speak out for and with those who aren’t listened to—
if God calls you to preach
good news that’s not easy—
that’s hard and hopeful—
good news that’s big,
then anyone who tells you you’ve misunderstood ….”

“You’re grinding your teeth again.”

“You know, if it’s just them
missing what you have to share,
that’s sad.
But if they are in positions to deny your voice—
to make your big seem small—
when their own small shrinks a vision so much bigger,
that’s infuriating—
still sad,
but even more infuriating. 

Ultimately, of course, small cannot contain big.
It can do a lot of damage trying.
More than just making parts of big real uncomfortable—
small can kill parts of big, but, in the end,
small cannot contain big.”

“That’s Easter, isn’t it?”

“That’s why it’s they who misunderstand.
In the end, it’s all Easter.
And the first one to get that—the first one to preach that—
the first one to preach Easter—”

“Was a woman!”

A Deacon in Heaven

Post author Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton serves as co-chair of Equity for Women in the Church and adjunct professor at Richland College. She is an Alliance of Baptists ordained minister and an award-winning hymn text writer and author of books on inclusive theology and worship. She blogs at www.jannaldredgeclanton.com.



For more than 30 years my mother, Eva Aldredge Henley, advocated for the ordination of women deacons and pastors in her West Texas Baptist church. But that still hasn’t happened. She didn’t live to see this happen—at least not on earth. One of her church friends wrote in the memorial service guest book: “She’s a deacon in heaven!”

For 90+ years Mother prayed, along with Christians around the world, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our Creator’s will for her was finally done in heaven. But why not on earth as in heaven? Why didn’t the churches she served so faithfully for so many years give her the freedom to become all she’s created to be in the divine image while she was on earth? Far too many churches still deny the divine image in women by denying them the right to be deacons, pastors, or priests.

All her long life Mother was a dedicated Christian and faithful church member. She taught Sunday school for 82 years. The Sunday before she went to heaven, she even taught her class. Her class, “Any and All,” is aptly named because she not only welcomed all to her class but actively sought them out. She invited anyone she saw—from the grocery store cashier to waiters at restaurants. Her class members have been of 5 different races, various ages, genders, and economic backgrounds—many who don’t feel comfortable in other Sunday school classes and churches. She lived Jesus’ words: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

She ministered to a diversity of people also in her role as pastor’s wife in four churches. Like my father, she had a seminary degree and abundant pastoral gifts. Her gregarious personality, dynamic speaking voice, and exceptional leadership skills made her every bit as qualified as my father to pastor a church. But she served churches as an unpaid, untitled outreach worker, events organizer, educator, and development officer. She co-founded a missions organization and led mission trips to eight countries, including 46 mission trips to Ukraine. She raised money for missions around the world. In addition, she ministered to students for 25 years in her position as a high school English teacher.

In spite of her long, faithful service, churches did not consider her “qualified” to be ordained as a deacon or a pastor because she was a woman. They ordained men half her age and younger with far fewer gifts and far fewer years of dedicated service. They counted them worthy and qualified because they were men. But no woman, no matter how gifted or called or how faithfully she served the church, was deemed worthy and qualified—simply because she was female.

Sadly, churches’ discrimination against women is still widespread. This discrimination has consequences. In a Baptist Standard article titled “How Do Evangelicals Enable ‘Locker Room Talk’ about Women?” editor Marv Knox calls out “male-dominated patriarchal” evangelical churches who contribute to “rape culture” by treating “women as objects” instead of as “creatures of infinite worth who bear the image of their Creator.” He writes: “Women are the backbone of the church, but in most congregations, they are not allowed to exercise leadership equal with men. Few allow women to be deacons; fewer still allow them to be pastors. So, no matter how many times they tell their daughters, ‘God made you, and you can be anything God wants you to be,’ they don’t mean it. Girls and women have their limits.”

President Jimmy Carter writes in A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power that “discrimination and violence against women and girls is the world’s most serious violation of human rights,” and he points out the religious basis for this discrimination and violence:

There is a system of discrimination, extending far beyond a small geographical region to the entire globe; it touches every nation, perpetuating and expanding the trafficking in human slaves, body mutilation, and even legitimized murder on a massive scale. This system is based on the presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls, and it is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible and other sacred texts to perpetuate their claim that females are, in some basic ways, inferior to them, unqualified to serve God on equal terms.

A Baptist Sunday school teacher for more than 70 years, Carter gives thorough biblical support for the equality of women:

There is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women: he treated them as equal to men, which was dramatically different from the prevailing custom of the times. The four Gospels were written by men, but they never report any instance of Jesus’ condoning sexual discrimination or the implied subservience or inferiority of women. It is ironic that women are deprived of the right to serve Jesus Christ in positions of leadership as they did during his earthly ministry and for about three centuries in the early Christian churches. It is inevitable that this sustained religious suppression of women as inferior or unqualified has been a major influence in depriving women of equal status within the worldwide secular community.

Churches’ discrimination against women has consequences. Our recent Presidential election is a striking example. The majority of evangelicals and Catholics voted for a man who denigrated and abused women through his words and actions, even bragging about sexually assaulting women. This majority of evangelicals and Catholics didn’t value women enough to find this candidate’s behavior reprehensible enough to keep them from voting for him. Their churches have taught them that women are not really worth that much, not worthy enough to be ordained deacons, pastors, or priests. So it’s little wonder they don’t think a Presidential candidate’s misogynist words and deeds are a big deal. And since their churches have taught them that women are not qualified and worthy to be deacons, pastors, or priests, they don’t believe a woman, no matter how qualified, is worthy to be President either. They have learned well what churches, through words and actions, have taught them about the inferiority of women.

How long, how long will churches contribute to discrimination and violence against women by denying them freedom to fulfill their calling to be deacons, pastors, or priests?

Now more than ever, I feel the urgency of the mission of Equity for Women in the Church. Equity for Women in the Church is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. Since the fall of 2013 this ecumenical, multicultural organization has been working towards justice and equality for women and girls. We work to tap all the unused talent and training of culturally diverse women. We advocate and network for women across denominations and cultures so that we have opportunities to fulfill our calling to be deacons, pastors, or priests. We work to change churches so they affirm the divine image in women and girls as making us worthy and qualified to be included as equals in every aspect of ministry. Love demands it. Scripture teaches it. Jesus modeled it.

As a “deacon in heaven,” Mother continues to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—our Creator’s will for women to have equal freedom to become all we’re created to be. I’d like to believe that as Mother now has this freedom in heaven, she may be able to help make it so on earth.

 

Meet Rev. Kyndall Rae Rothaus

Rev. Kyndall Rae Rothaus is pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and author of Preacher Breath (Smyth and Helwys, 2015).  

Rev. Rothaus kindly agreed to an interview with Equity for Women in the Church.

Equity for Women in the Church’s mission is to “facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.”  How does this mission speak to you? 

Our world is so desperately in need of equal representation of women in church leadership. For far too long, the church has neglected to listen to the voices of half its population, and anytime you amputate a part of the body of Christ like that, it has severe consequences. However, this centuries-old crippling need not be permanent. I’m excited that Equity for Women in the Church is committed to healing the church from the fractures caused by sexism.

Have you experienced "subtle" and/or "blatant" sexism as a pastor?

Certainly. Most professional women in any field suffer sexism, though I think it is often worse in Christian settings unfortunately, because too many people of faith have misused the Bible to reinforce gender stereotypes and hierarchies. The sexism I experience is more often subtle than overt, and it is sometimes disguised as age discrimination instead. I sort of doubt my male colleagues of a similar age receive the same volume of unsolicited advice from elders and disparaging comments about their youth that I do.

I remember leading a workshop at a conference on how to thrive in your first year of pastoral ministry. I had recently completed my first year as a senior pastor at the age of twenty-seven, which I imagine is pretty young for a Baptist female in Texas. One of the workshop participants was a young man who had just begun his first pastorate. He was nineteen, and no one batted an eye. (Well, I might have batted an eye.)

All things considered, I’ve been quite fortunate. I’m in my second pastorate at the age of thirty-one while I consistently hear from women my age and older who worry they will never find a church who will hire them. Some of the churches who are open to women ministers in theory want to hire pastors with ministerial experience, but there are not nearly enough places to get experience. Women don’t get invited into their homes pulpits (usually). We’re often left to advocate for ourselves, all while battling the internalized messages that we aren’t enough and that we will not make it.

In your powerful response to Baylor University’s mishandling of sexual assault on campus, you make an explicit connection between the sexism perpetuated by the church and violence toward women: “When we’ve barred women from the pulpit regardless of how passionately they tell us they are called, we should not be shocked when some of our sons do not regard a woman’s sexual consent as necessary either.”  What are some ways churches can affirm women’s experiences and voices? 

Tell women’s stories. Quote female authors. Read books by women. Invite women into the pulpit—to pray, to preach, to read Scripture. Tell the stories of women in the Bible. Talk about abuse, assault, and violence against women from the pulpit.

When women do speak up, do not dismiss what they have to say just because it hasn’t been your experience. In group conversations, whether they be in Sunday School, meetings, or small groups, pay attention if male voices are dominating the conversation. Encourage equal participation. Celebrate bravery more than modesty. Invite children to lead in worship. Strive to have equal gender representation in all areas of the church’s life. Invite women to share their stories and testimonies.

Talk about God as both father and mother. Use gender inclusive language. Validate women’s concerns as important.

How do you help your congregation grow toward greater equality and gender inclusivity?  And how do you deal with resistance to these efforts?

I be myself. I look for ways to be more of myself. I think this is really important because we have not achieved equality if I (or anyone else) is having to fit into the traditional male model in order to succeed.

I try to model inclusivity by being intentional about including women and men in all areas of church life, especially leadership in worship. I encourage young girls to be brave and know their worth.

I bring a feminist eye to the Scriptural text and a sensitivity to woman’s experience to my interpretative work. I also (and I think this is the most important thing) try to let my own experiences of oppression create in me a deeper sensitivity, compassion, and passion for justice for all who are oppressed. Equality isn’t just about women. It’s so much bigger than that, so much more complex and intersectional. If my experiences don’t open my eyes to the oppression of my brothers and sisters, then I have wasted my suffering.

As for dealing with resistance, that’s a tough one. I try to be kind, pastoral, understanding, and patient without sacrificing my beliefs, my integrity, or my voice. It’s a difficult (and tiring) balancing act that’s nearly impossible to get just right. Discerning when to fight a battle and when to just let it be—these are tricky and sometimes daily decisions.

I try to remember that the resistance isn’t just “out there”—in the world, in my congregation—resistance is in me too. So I practice self-awareness, because it’s not like I’m immune to blind spots. It’s good to remember we are all learning, and even though I’m teaching, I’m also always learning, so I try to be a good learner. I try to be honest about what I’m learning, and hopefully with my own vulnerability I can ease some of the fears we all have about finding out we were wrong about something.

Self-care is hugely important, otherwise I’d crumble! I come close to crumbling often, but fortunately I have friends who piece me back together as often as I need it. We keep each other going, and that makes all the difference. I don’t think anyone should attempt ministry without friends. It’s too dangerous to do alone. Also, I try to practice gratitude, because for every setback, there’s almost always a joy to be found too. I forget to pay as much attention to the good things as the hard things, so gratitude helps me re-shift my focus every now and then so I don’t get to wallowing. Antidepressants help too, as does therapy, nature, and quiet mornings on the couch. Finding creative and nondestructive ways to process and release anger and grief are vital.

Often advocating for women in ministry is seen as a “women’s issue,” rather than as an urgent justice matter that impacts the whole church and every gender.  Why is it important for men to step up?  How can men advocate on behalf of women in ministry? 

First of all, sexism poisons everybody. Sexism has so many negative impacts on men as well as women. For example, we’ve been handed this distorted picture of masculinity—one that cuts men off from their emotions, disparages men’s tenderness and nurturing instincts, encourages violence, aggression, and domination, and even goes so far in some cases as to excuse criminal behavior. An overwhelming percentage of the world’s violence is perpetrated by men. It seems to me some of that brutality must stem from the unrealistic demands of “masculinity” that cripple too many of our men, fostering in them a fragility that must be tiptoed around, a sense of entitlement that must be preserved, and an insecurity about themselves that must remain hidden at all costs. Thank goodness for the men who have followed a different path, but when you are bombarded by harmful images of manhood, it is difficult to find your own way. I think if men and women worked together in relationships of mutual respect, we would help each other in significant and far-reaching ways.

One way for men to be advocates is to talk less and listen more. I remember asking a congregant if we ought to open the women’s Bible study to men and make it co-ed. She told me she’d rather not because men tend to dominate the conversation. I hear this from women all the time, and I don’t think most men even realize they do it. I know plenty of feminist men who still talk too much and too loudly. I love that they’re feminists. I would love it even more if an active part of their feminism was granting women the space to speak for themselves.

Don’t preach about why women are equal and should be preachers. Treat them as equals and invite them to preach. If you’re church “isn’t ready” for a woman in the pulpit, don’t accept that as an answer. When have God’s people ever “been ready” for God’s next thing? Most people don’t like change, but if change is the right thing, you have to be loyal to what is right, not loyal to what people want.

Also, cut it out with the sexist jokes. They aren’t funny.

Finally, pay attention to a woman’s intellect. We are perfectly capable of having a professional conversation without drooling over your body, and we expect the same level of maturity and competence from you. If you are unable to do so, you really ought to see a therapist about that.

What advice would you give to girls and women who are considering going into professional ministry?

Do it! We need you!

It’s a tough job, and so, yes, it’s a good idea to take your time prayerfully considering if this is the path for you. But if you choose not to go this route, do NOT let it be because you feel boxed in by your gender. That box deserves to be broken, and you deserve to be free of it.

Be you, and trust that you are enough.

Don’t feel like you have to defend your call to every naysayer who questions you. It’s not your job to change their minds. It’s your job to use your own mind to its fullest potential, and you really don’t have the time to waste it on people who won’t listen. It’s your job to be faithful to the work, and the work itself is your defense. Rock at what you do, and it’s harder for the opposition to stick.

What do you love most about being a pastor?

I love being safe space to people who are hurting. I love welcoming the formerly ostracized and the spiritual refugee. I love, love preaching. I love talking to kids at church and marveling at their imaginations. I love thinking creatively about worship, prayer, and Scripture. I love using my voice for good. I love writing and dialoguing with folks about what I’ve written. I love moving at a poet’s pace, when I can manage it. I love finding a new angle to an ancient story and bringing it alive for minds and hearts. It’s hard work, but I love standing for justice and knowing that a handful of the marginalized people in our town consider me their friend and ally. I love being innovative, and I love the moments in ministry when I really feel free to be myself.

A Legacy of Inclusion

Chris Individual picture.jpg

Post author Christine Y. Wiley is a senior pastor, American Baptist and United Church of Christ minister, in Washington DC.  She has recently completed research on the intersection of religion and mental well-being with African American women.

In one year my husband and I will retire from a church we will have pastored for thirty-two years. I have much on which to reflect. My church has a legacy of inclusion and trying to build the beloved community, which at times has felt daunting. For many, leadership in the church universal has only felt comfortable if the pastor, elder, bishop, or priest has been male. While I admit that I have witnessed many gains for women in ministry over the last 30 years, it is also true that, with regard to the issue of empowerment of women in the church, much remains the same.

In 1983, this writer became the first woman to be endorsed by Covenant Baptist Church in Washington DC for vocational professional ministry; and in 1986, the first woman to be recommended for ordination and employed by my local, dually-aligned, Baptist convention. My employment was not without some trouble and harassment. A council of nine white men was established to determine the worthiness of this twice-married, once-divorced African American woman ordained to the gospel ministry. They were pleased to find out that my first husband had abandoned my little girl and me, instead of the other way around. In their minds, it better suited my ecclesiastical history to have been a victim.  

Nevertheless, this council recommended that 79 churches come together to vote on whether an ordained female minister should be allowed to serve as denominational staff in a part-time program associate position in Christian Education. The major concern was not that I was a woman, but an ordained woman. 

This convention was aligned with one Baptist denomination that endorsed the ordination of women, and one that did not. It was used to the gifts and talents of seminary educated women, but the ordination became the stumbling block.

Although a majority of churches voted to install me into the Christian Education staff position, several churches insisted that I could not minister in their churches, nor could any of their mission offerings go towards my salary. The process took several months. During this waiting period I learned that I was pregnant with my younger daughter and, when she was three months old, was told that the position was finalized. God sometimes has a sense of grace and humor. The delay gave me time to develop the Christian Education Ministry in my church, establish my pastoral counseling practice, enroll in a D.Min. program, and spend time with my infant baby girl.

Over the years the number of women enrolled in seminaries has increased significantly. I am happy that out of the more than 30 sons and daughters who have entered the gospel ministry under our pastorate, the majority have been women with amazing gifts and talents who have gone on to serve in significant ministry positions. The other reality, however, is that whereas the men have often had the luxury to be called to other churches and institutions, many of the women serve in volunteer positions and are bi-vocational, multi-tasking super women who appear able to do anything. As often noted, women have had to be creative over the years in response to sexism in the world and in the church. Often, in order to be engaged in ministry, they minister to others about self care and Sabbath time, but my concern is that they often do not allow time to pay attention to their own self care. 

Sexism has been deeply felt by many women associate ministers who have been denied the opportunity to serve as senior pastors. After years of service, I am aware of male senior pastors who have become concerned about their female associate ministers who possess advanced degrees, exercise progressive thinking, and demonstrate a capacity for deep theological reflection. There have been more than a few occasions where I have found myself in counsel and consultation with such women who have served churches for years with hard work and innovative success, only to be told that the church is “going in a different direction” and their services are no longer needed.

Injustice and oppression is an ongoing battle that we must continue to engage. Although sexism is a part of this struggle, we as the people of God cannot afford to be concerned only about our personal oppression and not see what is going on around us. We are in the midst of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, mass incarceration, police brutality and murder, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia.  Even when it comes to Equity for Women in the Church, we are not all necessarily in the same place theologically. What I appreciate, however, is the opportunity to dialogue even around our differences. As an African American, female, progressive clergywoman, I have come to realize that there are many intersections that describe us as human beings

My personal experience with sexism in the church, as well as racism in the academy and the world, illustrates to me that other forms of bigotry cannot be ignored. When our church ordained me many years ago, we were thrown out of our local Baptist ministers fellowship. These kinds of oppressive actions have sensitized our church, reminding us that all people are God’s people. Members, leaders, and clergy of this church have resolutely decided to love all of God’s people despite the objections of our more conservative brothers and sisters. Some, of course, complain that our prophetic ministry conflicts with the conservative typecast of the Black Church. Newer members, however, have come seeking a church where the unconditional love of Christ is evident and where people are not afraid to welcome a rich diversity of God’s people through a radically inclusive ministry.

Although we remain a predominantly African American congregation, we are also gay and straight; black, white, and Hispanic; and we span the entire range of ages. Those early Southern Baptist members of Covenant laid out a legacy of inclusion in the late 1960’s by calling a black pastor and inviting African Americans to join the church. This occurred in a racially changing community in the midst of white flight due to Brown vs. the Board of Education. We tested the idea of “the beloved community” by addressing sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism, and, yes, even Islamaphobia when we hosted a conference inviting experts, including local Imams, to address “Breaking down the Barriers that Divide Us.”

Has it been difficult to remain prophetic and address many of the “isms”? Yes it has. Have some left our church because of it? Yes they have. But many more of God’s diverse and progressively minded people have joined us to become part of a “beloved community.” A legacy of inclusion, justice, equality, and liberation emerged in this church. It has always been my query, since I was a little girl, wondering whether the church could really be the church—a place where differences and diversity can be loved and celebrated. Can we really practice what our faith teaches, or would we say it is too impractical, too messy, too uncomfortable? I remember, when talking to one of my parishioners about our responsibility in the face of oppression as Christians, he said, “Pastor, I’m not trying to hear all that. I’m just trying to come to worship, get my praise on, and go home and watch the game.”

Retirement is just around the corner—2017. There have been some hindrances, we have faced some challenges, and perhaps even some adversity, but so did the central figure of our faith. It is our understanding that this trailblazing ministry is not only necessary, but can help to heal the breach that divides people one from another. It will help us as a church to authentically know what love is as we continue to build the beloved community.

"I Can Do It" But Should I?

Post author Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace is Assistant Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary. She specializes in social justice issues in American religion, particularly race and gender. She is a board member of Equity for Women in the Church, creator of the "Stole Sisters" podcast, and a figure skating coach. 

I've spent a lot of time thinking about gender inequity in the workplace, particularly in church work and higher education.

Why aren't women paid the same? Are women asked to do the same amount of work as men? Why are women such reliable lay volunteers but excluded from top leadership, or in the case of higher education, why are the most reliable staff often women, but the top leadership are almost always men?

While this is still an ongoing wondering for me, I do have some ideas. Please keep in mind that these are all general tendencies, and that I am in no way trying to speak for all women or all men or all churches or all educational institutions. These are just general observations, to which I'm sure there are nuances. (And the reason I had to write that at all is because I know there will be men who read this and want to quickly correct me for how non-sexist they personally are, without even taking the time to think about how they benefit from the system by being male or how their complicity with these systems does perpetrate sexism.)

Women are incredibly competent. We are good organizers, good with people, and willing to work hard to acquire new skills. We are ideal employees!

We are also very good jugglers, because we have had to be. (This was the most unsatisfying punchline of a rom com ever, in I Don't Know How She Does It.) We are constantly juggling to-do lists, long-range plans, short-range plans, grocery lists, menus, drop-offs, pick-ups, health care needs and frequencies, car repair needs and frequencies, budgets, organizing strategies, physical fitness for the family, sports and activities for the family, whose birthday is when and what gift to give, upcoming travel plans, what to wear in the family photo and who/where/when to take it, etc. And that's just our personal life, what some scholars have called "emotional labor." Even if there is a partner to help with the execution of household and family responsibilities, women tend to be the ones who manage this work, keeping track of what needs to be done and when, and delegating the responsibility. We still hold it, even if others help us do it.

And, we are juggling in parallel at work. We are thinking about committees, reports, newsletters, events, networking relationships, upcoming hires, upcoming presentations, class prep, professional development, conferences, association membership and leadership, etc. And even those women who are lucky enough to have a staff to help them are having to keep track of everything to appropriately delegate the right tasks to the people who can best execute them. We hold it all.

And on top of that, women tend to volunteer for things much more often than men. Whether it's to demonstrate competency, lean in with ambition, or a sense of obligation to help others whenever in need, women tend to volunteer for way more than men do.

In higher education, this means women spend more time advising, counseling, serving on committees, assisting with other departmental efforts, etc, which takes a lot of time and often interferes with having sufficient time for things that directly lead to promotion - namely, teaching and publication. So, the system of university evaluation and promotion systemically disadvantages those who are more engaged in service, which typically means women and minorities, the very folks already facing disadvantage in the field.

In church life, this means women spend more time on pastoral care visits, answering phones or returning calls, sending cards, offering mid-week Bible studies, sitting on committees, or having planning conversations. They are the backbone of the work, but very little in the limelight. And because of expectations that pastors serve their congregations, and the prejudice against women pastors, it is very difficult for women pastors to say no or to set boundaries on their time.

Serving professions (teaching, ministry, social work, etc) attract people who care about others and want to make the world a better place through service. These fields attract a lot of women. And women tend to be among the most competent in all of these fields, and more.

But these are the same fields that tend to exploit the labor of women, letting them put in extra hours without bonus pay or promotion, letting them sign up for lots of extra service opportunities but not factoring that in their evaluations, expecting them to produce results but not guiding them in how to budget their time so that they can succeed on the career ladder.

I'm so tired of the quick-and-thoughtless response that women are choosing to raise families, which is why they aren't seeking career mobility. What that means is that women are still expected to do most if not all of the work of raising a family, even if they work full-time, but men now want to take half or more of the credit.

And what's worse, it's so rare for men to volunteer for something that, when they do, a big deal is made about it. How many times have you heard moms at school compliment a particular dad for helping, but not expect similar gratitude for their consistent above-and-beyond helping? He did it once, which is so rare and precious, so we must throw him a parade, but never mind that we rise to the occasion on top of our regular jobs day in and day out!

Just yesterday, a colleague and I were trying to visualize the life of some of the men we know professionally. Wake up and put on clothes you did not wash, eat a breakfast you did not cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, drive to work at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's drop-offs, work until you feel done for the day, drive home at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's pick-ups or errands, rest a bit in a comfortable chair before you eat a meal you didn't cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, read or watch television leisurely until you were ready to go to bed, and then repeat. We could not imagine it. Even when our children are staying elsewhere for a night, we are still juggling laundry, errands, menus, lists, tidying, health, and relationships. We don't get up when we want. We don't go to bed when we want. We often leave work before we feel done for the day. And when we do get home, we start an hours-long shift of caretaking, cooking, cleaning, and prepping for the next day. I'm lucky if I get 30 minutes of leisure time before I go to bed. But the men we were thinking of often post loving dad pics on Facebook, which is perhaps the only 30 seconds they spent with their kid all day. Most of their time is about themselves, yet they get credit for being an invested parent. Mom, on the other hand, is doing most of the work at work and most of the work at home, and it's "normal" so we take it for granted.

I doubt that most institutions mean to exploit the labor of women. I suspect that a problem is posed, a woman volunteers to help or has already demonstrated capability to solve the problem, and she is tasked. Women are doing more work, for less pay, and then going home and putting in another full-time job's worth of a shift to care for their families. Even if they have a staff at work and a supportive/responsible partner at home, women tend to carry the burdens.

It's a vicious cycle. If I say no to something I know I am capable of doing, I feel guilty, like I'm not being a responsible member of my community. But there are some things that I just don't have the resources to do. I don't have the time or emotional energy to take on every project that needs doing. Others have much more time than I do, they just aren't volunteering. Others know how to do the task just as well as I do, or even better, they just aren't volunteering.

And in the faculty/staff meeting, inevitably, the leader will ask for volunteers, there may be an awkward silence, and odds are a woman will fill it by volunteering herself. We are used to juggling a million responsibilities, so what's one more? We can get it done.

But is this ultimately helping us, making us look more like members of the team, and demonstrating our well-rounded capability? Or, is this keeping us in a hamster wheel, so bogged down in the things that others weren't willing to do, that we undermine our own career progress?

I'm not saying women shouldn't invest where they feel capable and able to help. Each woman should get to determine such things for herself. I'm saying that some environments recognize women as super jugglers and systemically take advantage of them, whether those environments realize they're doing this or not. I'm also saying some women don't realize when it's happening to them, and think that eventually their hard work will be recognized, but ultimately end up getting passed over for promotion by a man.

It's a complex problem that will require careful reflection by all involved. There's not one solution. The answers likely depend on the specific context. Some employers are being very careful to ensure that service counts for promotion. Some employers encourage their junior staff/faculty to judiciously limit their involvement so that their time can be devoted to developing new courses and publishing. And some employers insist on offering supplemental pay, revised job titles, or promotions for those who truly exceed their job descriptions. Some employers keep tally of who has volunteered for what and require those whose numbers are lagging to pull their weight.

But it is a problem. Even if women get to the executive table, which is still incredibly difficult, the table isn't set up for fairness. Men reap higher dividends even when women make bigger investments. The playing field is not level. And until the systems that perpetuate uneven expectations and uneven rewards for women are redeemed, we will have tokenism at best.

 This blog originally appeared at courtneypace.blogspot.com

Embodying Liturgical Seasons: Thoughts on Motherhood & Church

Post author Beth Honeycutt is a home economist living in Mars Hill, NC.  After divinity school, she served for four years as Minister of Christian Education at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC.  She is now a full-time caregiver to her 7-year-old son and 3-year-old boy-girl twins.   She feels blessed to be parenting in partnership with her husband.  Beth is a Sunday School teacher at her church, Circle of Mercy, in Asheville, NC.

I love my church.  I am profoundly grateful for the ways they have supported me as a person and a mother.  Circle of Mercy shares the values of Equity for Women in the Church, as two women and one man founded the church in 2001.  We currently have two female co-pastors, whose lives as daughters, sisters, spouses, mothers, aunts, and grandmother strengthen their authenticity and authority.

I love that my children see collaborative leadership in preaching, worship, and decision making among men and women, old and young, lay and clergy, gay and straight.  I love how those who serve communion weekly always stoop over to share the bread and cup with my children.  I love how sometimes children are the communion servers, and others must stoop over to them.  I love that each staff person, from pastor to child care worker, is paid the same hourly rate.  Some staff are paid more than others because they need more time to carry out more duties, but the work roles have equal value.  We are by no means a perfect church, but it feels like home to me and my family.

World Communion Sunday at Circle of Mercy (photo by Marc Mullinax)

World Communion Sunday at Circle of Mercy (photo by Marc Mullinax)

In light of my gratitude for my pastors and congregation, this blog invitation gives me an opportunity to put in writing some ideas I have been busy living.  Here at the edge of Eastertide, I find myself thinking how we can experience the rhythms of the church year in our bodies. Let me give you an example from my own life of early, biological motherhood: Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost resonate with pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.

Lent and pregnancy are periods of Waiting.  Preparation.  Expectancy.  Lent comes from a word that means “lengthen.”  Before Easter, the days lengthen (in the Northern Hemisphere).  The baby makes the pregnant mother’s belly lengthen, widen, and round: past a certain point, I couldn’t see my feet while standing!

Lent is traditionally a season of repentance, of setting aside certain things to make room for spiritual growth, of reordering priorities.  Pregnancy is a period of setting aside and reordering, too. The mother’s organs literally shift to make room for the womb.  I felt new priorities because of the new life inside, like the craving to have a specific food right-here-right-now or the sudden need to rest when I wasn’t planning a nap.  I declared a fast of sorts, abstaining from and limiting certain foods, even as my protein, calcium, and water intake skyrocketed.  I bonded with the toilet to respond to nausea in the beginning and a pancake-shaped bladder in the end.  I redefined “accomplishment” as my feet were propped after merely folding a load of laundry and checking the mail.  

Just as Lent is a time to develop new ways of being and moving in the world, the pregnant woman walks differently, sits differently, stands differently.  Belly grows, breasts grow, ankles grow, feet widen, head to toe bears weight gain. In the weeks nearing birth, I turned sideways in order to access the kitchen sink or the cutting board of vegetables.  St. Paul admonishes the Colossians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience…love” (3:12, 14).  As the pregnant woman embodies these values, she must literally wear different clothes!  I had new priorities because of the new life inside. 

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are traditional Lenten practices that shape our intentions and flesh out our desire to draw close to God.  Today, we may interpret fasting as promise-making, either by giving something up, or by vowing to do something important, all with God’s help.  Preparing for a baby has the fast-like quality of vowing to love, care for and cherish.  It involves child birth classes.  Car seat wrangling.  Diaper acquisition.  Baby care plans.  Name deliberation.  All with God’s help.

Almsgiving is generous concern for others.  In pregnancy, the “other” is both part of you and separate from you.  Because all nutrition goes first to the fetus, the woman’s very bones will cry out and surrender the calcium stores it had for her if she doesn’t eat enough of what the baby takes.  It is all too easy for women to give to others before we give to ourselves.  We must guard against depletion, anemia, burnout.  Through mothering and ministering, many women find it easy to be generous to and concerned for others.  Let us include our needs in this too!

Sometimes, almsgiving means that we are the poor and needy.  We may need to receive the almsgiving-generosity of others.  Church people are ever so generous to expectant and new parents, but only if I let it be my turn to receive, my turn to be vulnerable, my turn to rest.  From my own church community, I love that I asked for and received a blessingway in the weeks prior to my final pregnancy and delivery.  I love how people came to our apartment to help us with infant babies and a preschooler.  I love how even more came to help us move from apartment to house three years ago; we call ourselves “Mercy Movers” and help each other as needed. 

Conversation, bargaining, blessing, pleading with the divine….in other words, prayer…..comes naturally to most pregnant women.  In a single moment, I felt intense gratitude, desperation, humility and wonder.   My need for God and delight in God reached new heights.  I rediscovered Psalm 16 when I was pregnant: “…I keep the Lord always before me…my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure…”

And then. And Then!  The moment we’ve all been waiting for—Easter and birth!  Easter–a high, holy, feast day for the Church—celebrates Christ delivered unto life.  Birth delivers the child into air and light.  Birth delivers the mother from sciatica, gestational diabetes, heartburn, preeclampsia.  Birth fulfills the waiting to meet the little one face to face.  Birth is an incredibly definitive moment for mothers, a holy ground of opposites.  The travail of labor renders her weak and suffering, yet also strong and capable.  She may feel afraid and shy, and then totally uninhibited as the baby is placed in her arms!  Aware of both her mortality and power, the mother feels exhausted and elated, drained and triumphant.  Jesus dwelled in opposites too: he was dead, but is risen.  Risen indeed!

The miracle is irrepressible—neither controlled nor contained, but embraced.  The mother’s body stretches, the stone is rolled away.  I may not know how I gave birth; I may not know how God raised Jesus from the dead.  But I do know the miracles: the womb and tomb are empty!

People gather for Easter and for births.  There is much to celebrate as our joy is made complete.  The days are accomplished after 40 days in Lent and 40 weeks of pregnancy.  In awe of new life, we welcome the new baby and the resurrected Jesus.   

We also see that even a gorgeous, healthy, “normal” baby may have a misshapen head from passing through the mother’s pelvis.  We realize that Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.  The Eastertide stories show us that those closest to Jesus didn’t even recognize him.  Sometimes birth stories are complicated or traumatic.  The joy may be accompanied by regret; both are real, both are true.  With thanksgiving, we understand our need for God even more deeply.

After the birth, with God’s help, we incorporate the miracles into our everyday lives.  Breastfeeding and Pentecost bring us into seasons of discovery and growth, as new life in community takes root.  The resurrected Jesus appears to his friends, ascends to heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends on the people.  They see fire, they speak with different tongues, they share their wealth, they provide for the widows, they struggle through conflicts.  Their new community takes shape.

Breastfeeding was my favorite aspect of the early motherhood cycle.  Nursing was not such a demanding, head-to-toe-altering experience as pregnancy was; it was certainly less demanding than the hardest work of my life in labor.  Breastfeeding was a season of bonding on the outside, and getting to completely fill the need of the little one.  A desperate baby makes the mother dripplingly desperate too.  The breastfeeding hormones relax the twosome, then both are relieved and satisfied…the baby blissfully full, the mother blissfully empty.  I nursed my sons, and pumped and bottle fed my daughter; I feel the bonding and closeness is comparable…and must salute the added family workload tending bottles!

In the economics of nursing, mom and baby can trust one another to take and produce enough.  All that is needed can be found through sitting and eating together, praying and learning one another’s cues.…especially if the partner comes with frequent glasses of water, grandma changes a diaper, the church brings a meal, and grandpa folds the laundry.  This resonates with the shared common life of the First Church.  As the mother traces her stretch marks, as the disciples trace the marks in the risen Jesus’ hands, feet, and side—the miracle changes the whole community as it welcomes and provides for new life.

In my own church community, I love how from 9-18 months of age, my babies sat in high chairs and ate all through worship.  I love that an 85-year-old widower always asks how I’m doing: “Are your children running you ragged, or are you having a ball, or both?”  I love how my honorary grandmother in the church blesses the noise and shuffle of children in worship: “It means we have a hope and future!” she declares. 

Of course, not all of us know so intimately the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but how might each of us recognize the rhythms of preparation, labor, new life, and bonding?  What if it is through fostering or adopting children?  Or through any relationship we build?  Through work and ministries?  And is our awareness of these rhythms heightened when women are our pastors?

God is a Big Brown Bear

Post author Rev. Daniel Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain and an Association of Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor.  He works at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC and is an active member at Park Road Baptist Church.  He lives with his spouse and five-year-old daughter and loves craft beer and vinyl records. Daniel blogs at Shaken Parent Syndrome

On the way to church one Sunday morning, my daughter said from the backseat:

“Daddy, can we see God?”

I had to consciously remind myself that she is five and that she did not want or need a theology lecture.  Since I never know how to answer questions like this, I use a little trick cribbed from Socratic learning techniques:

“What do you think, sweetie?” I asked her back.  “Do you think we can see God?”

“No,” she answered.

Well, there you go, straight from the mouth of a kindergartener: we cannot see God.  But the curiosity of a child is not prone to merely asking questions it already knows the answers to.

“I wish we could see God,” she said

“Maybe sometimes you can,” I shrugged.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, can you see love?”

She thought for a moment.  “No.”

“But can you see when someone is doing something loving?”

“Yes.”

“Then maybe sometimes we can see someone doing something that God would do.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror; I could see from her expression that she wasn’t buying this.

I didn’t want this to be the end of the conversation; I wanted to rescue this conversation so she would feel as if talking about such things were ultimately a worthwhile endeavor.  “Well, if you could see God,” I asked, “what do you think God would look like?”

Without hesitation she said, “A brown bear.”

I had not seen that coming.  I’d half expected her to give me the classic WASPy child’s answer of an old man with a white beard, but instead I got a brown bear.  I couldn’t help but laugh with surprise – and not a little delight at her rich, if unintentional, subversion of stereotypical God images. 

“Is it a friendly brown bear?” I asked, suddenly struck by one possible problem with this metaphor.

She shrugged and rolled her eyes.  “Of course!”

“So you think God is a cuddly brown bear?” I summarized.  “Sounds good to me.”

After a few moments, she said, “I wish God was in the car with us.”

Again, my silly need to protect abstract theologizing overcame me and I said, “Maybe God is in the car with us.”

“Uh, no he isn’t,” she snapped, “or I would see him.”

“Oh, right,” I winced.  “Well, what would you do or say if you could see God in the car with us?”  At that thought, my own mind went straight to all the times that I, too, had wished for an audience with God.  My need for answers and explanations; my longing for an accounting of the sufferings I’ve seen; an assurance of some purpose at work beneath everything.

She looked out the window wistfully.  “I wish he was here right now so I could cuddle with him.”

I almost pulled the car over so I could let that soak in for a moment.  I pictured my child wrapped warmly in the protective arms of a fuzzy brown bear, no need for answers or explanations or assurances beyond warmth and presence.  My eyes filled with tears.

“That would be really wonderful,” I said after clearing my throat.  “Maybe sometimes God sends us other people who will cuddle us.  Maybe that’s how God cuddles with us, by bringing us other people who love us and cuddle us and look out for us.”

She frowned and continued to stare out the window; going abstract just wasn’t getting us anywhere.  She asked me more questions about God.  How does God eat?  How can God be in all places at once?  Where does God live?  All questions of concrete curiosity about this strange thing called God.  I answered as best I could, trying to avoid abstractions, and probably saying more about what I didn’t know.

My child is a concrete thinker.  It’s her job; it’s what her brain is built to do right now.  Intellectually, there are a lot of things in this world that are impossible to fully comprehend only from the concrete: love, hope, peace, God.  However, there is something really grounding and embodied about letting my child lead me into the concrete realities of these things.  Because I can philosophize about the nature of God all day long, but my real experiences of the divine are things I’ve felt in my gut and in my bones.  I’ve read a lot of books about emotions and love and passion, but the things I truly believe about the nature of love come from the ways I have been loved, and the only ways I’ve ever been loved are by people doing things for me in concrete, real, experienced ways.

I have no idea where God lives or what propels God’s existence or even what God is on any basic ontological level.  (Sorry, theology professors who taught me in seminary.)  I do know, however, that when I joined my child’s image of God – imagining with her how much she’d love to have a big teddy bear snuggle and protect her – that I felt close to God in that moment.  I felt warmth in my chest, felt a twinge of longing in my gut, felt the tears come to my eyes.  Those were all concrete experiences even if they came from trying to ponder abstractions.

It is essential that we have images for God.  We are imaginative creatures who make meaning through stories and symbols.  How can we understand a thing like the divine without the stories of scripture and our own lives?  Without the taste of bread and wine among friends?  Without the cleansing coolness of water or the sweet smell of oil and incense?  Without the hands of parents or the laughter of friends or the exhilaration of air in our lungs and sunlight on our cheeks?  I overlook all the concrete experiences that inform my understanding of God’s presence in favor of the vast and arcane theological arguments, but it is impoverishing for me to do so.  My child has no choice but to live in the concreteness of her life and it would do me good to join her.

A significant concrete experience of her life is living in her body.  Toes and fingers and curly hair and yes, the things that lead her and those around her to identify her as a girl.  Even though inclusive language is a theological concept adhered to with strict discipline in both our household and our church, she has still absorbed the tendency to speak of the divine with masculine pronouns.  For now, I don’t correct her; the abstractions of gender and language don’t seem particularly illuminating without the capacity for formal operational thinking.  But she sees a woman in the pulpit every Sunday morning at our church.  For the ways in which she sees pastoral leadership embodied by a strong, confident, thoughtful woman, it is well worth pleading with her to sit quietly while Pastor Amy preaches.  And as a church and family, we must continue to help her see herself in the divine, as we tell stories of faithful women disciples and of God as friend, Spirit, mother, midwife, sister.  As she uses the concrete world around her to learn to imagine, her mother and I want her to include as vast an array of images as possible in her make-up of divine possibilities: women, bears, and anything else she can dream up.

Of course, she is learning to experience the abstract through the concrete, even if she can’t yet comprehend it.  I’m thankful that she has people in her life who will cuddle and hold her and protect her and encourage her.  I’m thankful that she has food to eat and a bed to sleep in and shoes for her feet.  Her concrete experiences of care and provision will help her trust a God who seeks goodness and blessing for everyone.  And I’m thankful that she in turn can remind me of the concreteness of goodness.  Not just so I can get in touch with my own blessings, of which I have experienced many, but also that I might seek to be a concrete good for others.  Goodness – indeed, Godness – comes in many, many forms.

    

 

Not So Fast...The Double-Edged Sword of a Few Opportunities for Women Pastors

Chris%20Pic%20Option%205%202012.jpg

Post author Rev. Christine A. Smith has served as Senior Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Euclid, Ohio, since 2006. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling:  Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors (Judson Press, 2013) and creator of Shepastor, a blog for women in ministry. Rev. Smith has been married to Aristide Smith, Jr. for 22 years.  Together they have two sons (Aristide III and Caleb) and one daughter (Aris).

More and more congregations across Protestant denominations appear to be accepting women as licensed and ordained ministers.  Over the past two years, ABC USA saw the hiring of at least 6 women to serve as executive ministers in regions across America.  Recently, the historic Riverside Church in New York called a woman pastor.  Increasing numbers of churches have women serving as associate ministers.

Many seminaries have enrollments comprised of approximately 50% women. We are on our way, so it would appear.  But not so fast…

While it may seem that the struggle for women clergy is over, data proves otherwise. According to a 2015 Duke University study on the number of women serving as senior/solo pastors, the number still lingers at 11%.

In the article, “How Thick is the Stained Glass Ceiling?,” Heather Hahn writes:

Even as U.S. congregations become more ethnically diverse, a new analysis of Duke University’s National Congregations Study shows that women hold only a small minority of those faith communities’ top leadership positions.

Women serve as senior or solo pastoral leaders of just 11 percent of U.S. congregations — indicating essentially no overall increase from when the study was first done in 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend the nation’s religious services.

Yes, we have seen advancement in the number of women being called to and placed in senior/solo pastor positions, but the advancement is minimal and at a snail’s pace.  The fact that we can name the women indicates their scarcity. 

While the image of women serving in the pulpit is a welcomed picture, it can also be a double-edged sword.   With the advancement of a precious few women to the role of senior/solo pastor, some are developing a perspective that the struggle is over. With the increase of churches licensing and ordaining women, women serving in the role of associate minister is also on the rise.  Congregations who have one, two or more female associate ministers may truly struggle to understand the issue simply because they see women in the pulpit.

The stained glass ceiling, however, remains.  Statistics show that 89% of the time, Protestant churches pass over clergywomen and instead select a man for the top ministerial role.  In light of these daunting factors, what can advocates for women clergy do to change the current trend?  Below are some practical suggestions…

  • Retiring male pastors can help prepare their congregations to be open to God’s best… 3-5 years before their retirement, male pastors who are advocates for women clergy can spend time encouraging their congregations to be open to God’s best for them, regardless of gender.  Through sound biblical teaching, giving women opportunities to serve in prominent leadership roles, and open, honest dialogue, male pastors can plant seeds of receptivity among otherwise resistant lay people.
     
  • Denominational leaders can work with regional executives and elders to conduct workshops, provide resources (books, articles, guest speakers, etc.), and offer educational experiences to local pastoral search committees…  Whether churches have the “call” process or the “appointment” process, providing resources to church leaders that will help them to choose God’s best, regardless of gender, could be very beneficial for all concerned.
     
  • Develop a “Lead Pastor” project for women who feel called to pastor… The United Methodist Church developed a special program designed to pair women clergy called to pastor with women currently serving in the lead pastoral role.  The clergywomen shadowed/interned the lead pastor for a period of time.  This gave the clergywomen exposure and experience in leading larger congregations—a critical factor in creating opportunities for women who are often passed over due to lack of experience. (Read more about this endeavor here.)  Other denominations can develop a similar approach to increase opportunities for women pastors.

The aforementioned suggestions will not answer all of the issues related to the dearth of women pastors.  However, such efforts will advance the work to get beyond the stained glass ceiling!

Daring to Reach Out

Post author Lynn Casteel Harper is an interfaith chaplain, Alliance of Baptists minister, and writer living in Greenville, South Carolina.  She is currently working on a book about spirituality and dementia. 

On May 17, 1968, in front of the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, nine activists burned draft files, using homemade napalm, in protest of the Vietnam War.  Among the Catonsville Nine (all of whom were arrested) was Daniel Berrigan—Roman Catholic priest, peace activist, and poet.  As he walked in handcuffs on his way to trial, a young nun, Berrigan’s close friend, reached out her hand to him in a gesture of solidarity.  A federal agent descended on them, in what Berrigan describes as “a swift, reptilian move,” and crashed down between their hands with a karate blow.  “Don’t touch!” the officer barked.  Reflecting on the episode, Berrigan writes: 

It was the epitome of the system…Don’t touch—make war.  Don’t touch—be abstract about God and death and life and love.  Don’t touch—make war at a distance.  Don’t touch your enemies, except to destroy them.  Don’t touch…

Forty-seven years later, the “don’t touch” system persists.  It permeates our lives through all the forces that suppress whatever is true, honorable, and just.  Don’t touch—keep a safe distance from problems.  Don’t touch—violence toward women and people of color isn’t that big of a problem.  Don’t touch—keep your faith personal and private, nice and quiet.  Don’t touch—leave well enough alone.  Don’t touch—leave undisturbed the powers and principalities of the status quo.  Don’t touch—you can’t change much anyway.

“Don’t touch” rears its defeatist head in our faith communities.  True, churchgoers are probably not karate-chopping joined hands with swift, reptilian moves.  Rather an ethos of apathy toward injustice weaves its threads through the fabric of our communal lives.  Seemingly benign forms of “don’t touch” abound in the church, especially with respect to race and gender.  Maybe some of these lines sound familiar:    

  • Most people in our church support women in ministry, but we’ve just always had male pastors.  
  • We ordain women.  They serve as deacons in our church and as guest preachers on occasion. We do more than other churches in our town.
  • Our church is mostly white, but we welcome everyone.  Race is not a problem here.
  • Our worship styles are too different, so it just wouldn’t work to come together.
  • Race and gender aren’t topics of conversation at our church.  Those issues were settled a long time ago.  
  • We don’t want to get too political here.  It’s not worth creating controversy or losing members. 
  • If we just focus on following Jesus, injustices and inequalities will resolve themselves.
  • We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

These sentiments—which are often tacitly held rather than directly expressed—function to keep intact the status quo.  They reduce the rolling, rushing waters of justice to an anemic drip. They do nothing to counteract the underrepresentation of women in pastorates and pulpits; they do nothing to undermine de facto white privilege.  To do nothing, to risk nothing, is the essence of “don’t touch.” 

In the midst of such moral-ethical-spiritual stagnation, a new vision is emerging: Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.

To the forces of “don’t touch,” Equity for Women in the Church responds, “REACH OUT!  Risk touching and transforming faith communities and society!  Dare to imagine a new way of being the church!”  While the vision may seem idealistic at first blush, it makes good sense.  How natural (though not easy) for those who have been historically pushed to the edges of community life—women and minorities—to come together and forge faith communities across denominational and gender and ethnicity lines.   

In the Gospels, the woman who had suffered from hemorrhages serves as a good guide on this “reaching out” journey.  In the midst of a large crowd that pressed in on Jesus, she fights her way to him and dares to touch him, if even the fringe of his robe.  To receive healing, she reaches from the fringes to the fringes.  Feeling power “go out” from him, Jesus calls the woman out from the multitudes.  Instead of scolding her for her audacity, he holds her up as exemplary: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  This woman’s bold faith compels her to reach out, to hope for restoration, and to take hold of healing.  She defies the “don’t touch” forces that seek to hold her back.  Might we be so courageous?

This gospel story shows the healing power of touch, but we know that not all touch is life-giving.  We are painfully aware how touch can turn violent and violating, which is why we need just visions that seek to restore the sanctity of touch.  A just vision calls us to reach out in compassion, to extend the self in the service of truth and love, and to make ploughshares of swords.  The vision of Equity for Women in the Church calls us to touch in an effort to heal—to make well the sicknesses of thought and deed that prevent a more global, more complete vision of the gospel.  It is a touch that ultimately communicates peace.

The challenges to implementing such a transformative vision are many.  It means resisting a cheap unity, which flattens out real differences and silences discomforting voices.  It means developing relationships—not by avoiding the tough stuff—but in and through the dangers, toils, and snares.  It means approaching my own wounds and the wounds of others with equal reverence.  It requires “diving into the wreck”—to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich—and entering deeply into the stories (and histories) of our messy lives.  And especially for persons in dominant groups, it means serious, unblinking self-examination and critique—undergirded by an acute historical awareness of the legacy of white supremacy and male privilege.  

If all this seems too daunting, too impossible—well, that’s because it is.  It is a kin-dom vision, which means it is impossible to manage or administrate into existence.  It is impossible to contain or control—which is what makes the vision one of faith and not one of corporate expediency.  After all, the wind of the Spirit blows where she pleases.  

But let us make no mistake: while the vision cannot be micromanaged and bullet-pointed into reality, it does require intentionality, spiritual discipline, and good practices.  It calls on individuals and communities to make real commitments and to take concrete actions.  Without such intentionality, it is far too easy to default to a comfortable church-social club hybrid…and to roll back out the same ole “Don’t Touch” signs.

For Berrigan, the karate-chopping officer’s “don’t touch” epitomized a violent, impersonal system.  As I search for models for a transformed church and society—marked by courage, justice, and the pursuit of healing—Bree Newsome comes to mind.  On June 27, ten days after the terrorist attack in Charleston, Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and cut down the Confederate flag.  “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer,” she said.  “We can’t continue like this another day.”  

She refused the status quo.  She defied the “don’t touch” forces that say “just be patient,” “don’t rock the boat,” “wait another day.”  She dared to reach out (quite literally!), to cut down injustice, and to claim a greater vision.  May we possess a similar clarity of vision and audacity of action. 

Connect with Lynn at: lynncasteelharper.wordpress.com.